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To err is autonomic: Error-related brain potentials, ANS activity, and post-error compensatory behavior


  • Portions of this article were presented at the 42nd annual meeting of the Society for Psychophysiological Research, Washington, DC, October 2002.

Address reprint requests to: Robert F. Simons, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716, USA. E-mail:


A two-component event-related brain potential consisting of an error-related negativity (ERN/Ne) and positivity (Pe) has been associated with response monitoring and error detection. Both the ERN and Pe have been source-localized to the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC)—a frontal structure implicated in both cognitive and affective processing, as well as autonomic nervous system (ANS) modulation. The current study sought to examine the relationships among the ERN, the Pe, two autonomic measures, and behavior. Electroencephalogram (EEG), heart rate (HR), and skin conductance (SC) were recorded while subjects performed a two-choice reaction-time task. In addition to the characteristic ERN-Pe complex, errors were associated with larger SCRs and greater HR deceleration. The ERN correlated with the number of errors, but was unrelated to ANS activity and compensatory behavior. Pe, on the other hand, was correlated significantly with SCR, and both SCR and Pe were significantly correlated with post-error slowing.